“The legislation passed today reflects a balanced and collaborative approach to engaging with stakeholders and responding to their feedback.”
Those were the words of Peter Bethlenfalvy, former Wall Street banker turned Ontario provincial politician, on the day the government of Ontario passed Bill 124, the so-called Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, in November 2019.
The bill, which imposed a maximum wage increase of one per cent on unionized public sector workers for three years – below the rate of inflation, even before inflation skyrocketed during the pandemic – certainly did not represent a “balanced and collaborative approach.” Nor was it about protecting the public sector. It was a full-frontal attack on public sector workers.
An attack on public sector workers is, by default, an attack on women. Public sector workers, in Ontario and elsewhere, are disproportionately women – particularly low-wage public sector workers, who are the most impacted by this type of wage suppression legislation. Disproportionately women, and disproportionately racialized.
As it stands right now, a coalition of unions including ETFO have defeated Bill 124 in court. In a November 2022 ruling, Justice Markus Koehnen declared that the wage suppression bill infringed on workers’ Charter rights.
“The Charter protects not just the right to associate, but also the right to a meaningful process in which unions can put on the table those issues that are of concern to workers, and have them discussed in good faith,” Koehnen wrote.
The Ontario government is appealing the ruling.
A History of Attacks on Women Workers
Bill 124 is one piece of a much larger picture of the Ontario government’s undervaluing of women’s work and the care economy, and abandonment of any policies to promote gender equity.
This picture has been taking shape from the beginning. One of the Ford government’s first actions upon taking power was to undo a hard-fought win by workers across the province: the increase in the minimum wage.
On January 1, 2018, Ontario’s minimum wage jumped from $11.60 per hour to $14 per hour, with a further bump to $15 scheduled for the following year. Workers and their unions had been organizing for years to get that win, through the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign.
Despite the howls from various chambers of commerce and business lobby groups, the minimum wage increase did not actually eliminate jobs. What it did succeed in reducing were the gender and racial pay gaps in Ontario.
In 2019, hourly wages in Ontario increased by 3.4 per cent economy-wide. The estimated pay increases were larger for Black women (4.9 per cent) and racialized women (4.7 per cent) and for non-racialized women (4.1 per cent). The faster pace of increase in women’s earnings reduced the racial and gendered earning gaps in Ontario. In an economy where women disproportionately perform low-wage and precarious work, raising the floor means reducing inequality. We know that’s true, because that’s what happened.
When the Progressive Conservatives formed government in 2018, they came to power promising sweeping changes to make Ontario “open for business.” What they meant by that slogan quickly became clear, as they immediately froze the minimum
wage at $14 per hour, rather than increasing it by another dollar as scheduled.
For this government, reducing inequality is unimportant. With Bill 47 – the Making Ontario Open for Business Act – the government scrapped future increases in the minimum wage and stripped workers of several hard-fought rights.
Bill 47 removed the right to paid sick days for workers, just a little more than a year before the pandemic struck. The majority of workers most likely to need those sick days – in schools, in long-term care homes and in hospitals – are women.
But, just in case it wasn’t clear, Bill 47 also removed another right from women workers: the right to equal pay for equal work. Specifically, it removed the requirement that companies pay part-time and contract workers the same pay that they’d receive for doing the same job as a permanent, full-time employee.
In Ontario, Women's Work is Precarious Work
The fact that the government removed equal pay protections for precarious workers is, itself, an attack on women. Let’s look at a few precarious jobs in the public sector.
One of the lowest-paid jobs in the public sector is teaching assistant in elementary and/or secondary schools. As of 2015, these workers made an average of just over $25,000 per year – that’s half of the provincial average at the time. Fully 90 per cent of those workers were women. Early childhood educators, who were 97 per cent women that year, made $27,000, or 53 per cent of the average worker in the province.
These dynamics aren’t limited to education. Nurse aides, orderlies and patient services assistants in the healthcare system made 66 per cent of the provincial average and are 88 per cent women — along with being 33 per cent racialized workers, compared to the overall labour force proportion of 13 per cent. Home support workers make 50 per cent of the provincial average, are 91 per cent women, and 38 per cent racialized.
Precarity among women workers goes beyond wages; workers in low-paid jobs are also more likely to have to work multiple jobs to get by. In healthcare in particular, workers in some low-wage occupations are more than twice as likely as the average Ontario worker to have multiple jobs, often a result of poor working conditions.
The Ontario government’s labour market policies, particularly over the past five years, appear to have been crafted to ensure that these gaps and inequalities in the labour market do not shrink, rather that they widen, in fact. But workers have options beyond just sitting back and accepting this.
Unions are among the most powerful tools that working people have to address these types of inequalities. It was through collective bargaining that working women in Canada won the right to maternity leave, for example, and unions were the driving force behind campaigns for pay equity.
The Ontario government has expressed very little interest in listening to stakeholders when it comes to workers’ issues and women’s issues, but there is a venue where working women can assert their power together, and that’s the bargaining table.
We’ve seen very clearly recently that working women are willing to stand up for themselves and fight for justice. We saw it when CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions went on strike in November 2022. The vast majority of those workers are women.
The government could avoid this type of confrontation by simply “engaging with stakeholders,” as they have promised to do. We’ll see, in the coming months, if they have learned that lesson.
Sheila Block is a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.